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History of the 2nd Century Church: Part 3

Oct 15, 2007

The letter that Governor Pliny the Younger sent to his friend, the Emperor Trajan, gives us an independent witness to some basic practices of the early Christians. The letter is dated from 111-113 A.D., around the time that Ignatius was martyred in Rome. The letter tells what he learned in his investigation:

"They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition."

In other reports from the early Church, we find that the Christians took vows at the time of their baptism not to do certain things, such as attending the circuses and gladiatorial "games" at the coliseum. In this we find the origins of what would today be called a "Holiness movement." It is based on the idea that to be a Christian (or at least a member of the Church community) one must conform to a particular moral or "holiness" standard. This practice no doubt started out as beneficial and even necessary, but in the end turned into a pattern of legalism.

One must realize, of course, that when Christianity was introduced into the Greek and Roman culture, it presented a huge change of life style to the people of those cultures. Philip Schaff writes in his History of the Christian Church, Vol. II, p. 334,

"The ancient world of classic heathenism, having arrived at the height of its glory, and at the threshold of its decay, had exhausted all the resources of human nature left to itself, and possessed no recuperative principle. A regeneration of society could only proceed from religion. But the heathen religion had no restraint for vice, no comfort for the poor and oppressed; it was itself the muddy fountain of immorality."

The pagan gods and goddesses themselves were presented to the people as full of human vices of the worst sort. The Emperors were usually the worst of the worst in terms of morality. Their philosophers therefore lacked a religious basis for morality and could look to few political leaders for moral leadership. Schaff speaks of "the voluptuousness of Tiberius," "the madness of Caligula," "the vileness of Nero" (called "the inventor of crime"), "the refined wickedness of Domitian," "the shameless revelry of Commodus," the "mad villainy of Heliogabalus, who raised the lowest men to the highest dignities, dressed himself in women's clothes, married a dissolute boy like himself, in short, inverted all the laws of nature and of decency, until at last he was butchered with his mother by the soldiers, and thrown into the muddy Tiber."

"The emperor, in the language of Gibbon, was at once 'a priest, an atheist, and a god'." (Schaff, p. 317)

Seneca, the correspondent of the Apostle Paul, was the only philosopher who condemned the bloody games in the Coliseum, but his voice was drowned out by the roars of approval.

"To this gigantic evil the Christian church opposed an inexorable Puritanic rigor in the interest of virtue and humanity. No compromise was possible with such shocking public immorality. Nothing would do but to flee from it and to warn against it. The theatrical spectacles were included in 'the pomp of the devil,' which Christians renounced at their baptism. They were forbidden, on pain of excommunication, to attend them." (Schaff, p. 342)

It was only after the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. that the Emperor Constantine began to put an end to these bloody spectacles by legislative decree. Lecky's History of European Morals tells us, "There is scarcely any other single reform so important in the moral history of mankind as the suppression of the gladiatorial shows, and this feat must be almost exclusively ascribed to the Christian church."

Most people have not fully appreciated the enormous social and cultural change that began with Emperor Constantine. Slavery, for example, had been considered a natural right, opposed by almost no philosopher. The anti-slavery movement was first practiced in the early Church, and from there it spread to Rome itself. Constantine began this change by issuing a law in 315 against branding slaves on their face (or forehead).

When a Roman became a Christian, he usually set his slaves free, often at Easter at which time, it was said, Jesus set mankind free from the slavery of sin. And what shall we say about fornication and adultery, the degradation and oppression of women, the right of a slave owner to kill or rape any slave that he chose? Monogamy was the general rule in Greece and Rome, and divorce forbidden, but a man could have any number of concubines or consorts that he chose. Wives had no legal protection against a husband's infidelity.

Sickly or deformed babies were regularly drowned or left in the wood to the wild animals. Abortion was practiced as well with the use of drugs. Christians regularly saved such babies from death and raised them as their own. Schaff tells us on p. 369,

"Athenagoras declares abortion and exposure to be equal to murder. No heathen philosopher had advanced so far. Lactantius also puts exposure on a par with murder even of the worst kind, and admits no excuse on the ground of pity or poverty, since God provides for all his creatures."

And how shall we compare Christian love to that virtue in the Roman world? Schaff says on p. 371,

"The jus talionis, the return of evil for evil, was universally acknowledged throughout the heathen world as a just principle and maxim, in direct opposition to the plainest injunctions of the New Testament. We must offend those who offend us, says Aeschylus. Not to take revenge was regarded as a sign of weakness and cowardice."

We find such low definitions of love even today in the guise of non-Christian religions and common in governments such as our own. This is clearly seen in the patriotic reaction to the Twin Towers disaster, where Americans were induced by this spirit of revenge to return evil for evil in the name of good.

In the face of this enormous clash of cultures between Christ and Paganism, we see the pagan priests becoming alarmed that people were forsaking their temples. We see them appealing to the Emperors, who then passed legislation against the Christians, charging them with atheism, blasphemy of the gods, and even immorality and human sacrifice at their love-feasts.

The Christians fought back in their own way, by drawing a clear line of separation between them and the world as they knew it. Christians put walls around their community by not baptizing any believer until he was ready to renounce the whole social and religious culture in which he had once lived. This wall generally served a good purpose in the midst of its surrounding rampant immorality and brutal culture.

But it was also inevitable that, in time, this would degenerate into self-righteous legalism that the Apostle Paul would have found abhorrent. Like Peter, the Church focused too much on the wind and the waves of the world and took its eyes off of Christ Himself.


This is the third part of a series titled "History of the 2nd Century Church." To view all parts, click the link below.

History of the 2nd Century Church


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